11 Oct 2012

Say Goodbye To The Reef

By Ben Eltham
The Great Barrier Reef is in decline. The Gillard Government hasn't yet renewed funding for an important reef protection program - and Tony Burke has just approved a massive coastal coal port expansion, writes Ben Eltham
What's the most important story of the last week? Think about it: Alan Jones? Peter Slipper? No, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It is one of the greatest natural assets Australia possesses. The reef supports a tourism industry worth $6 billion annually. At least 54,000 full-time jobs are supported by economic activity associated with the reef, mainly in Queensland.

But the reef is in trouble. According to a recent study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral in the past 27 years. The study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, is based on the world's longest and best study of reef conditions; 2,258 surveys of 214 reefs were carried out between 1985 and 2012.

The results are stark. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. We're killing it.

The AIMS study shows "a major decline in coral cover", with 50.7 per cent of the reef's initial coral cover vanishing. Tropical cyclones, coral predation by Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), and coral bleaching were the three main culprits.

According to Terry Hughes, a federation fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, the decline of the reef is nothing short of a "national crisis."

"We are not dealing here with an individual super trawler visiting our coast, this is serious," he told the ABC's Ashley Hall last week. "I'd like to see the Prime Minister put $10 billion on the table and get serious about looking after the Barrier Reef."

There is debate about how much of the decline is related to human activities, of course, but it's clear the rapid industrialisation of the Queensland coast is a key factor. Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks appear to be related to run-off, and perhaps also to disruptions in marine ecosystems caused by coastal industry. Hughes, writing in The Conversation last week, puts it bluntly. "In reality, we are responsible for the loss of corals, not storms and starfish. Before people, corals recovered from routine shocks like recurrent cyclones, and now they don't."

Geography also gives us a clue. The reef is most damaged near the coast and in its southern sections. Further out to sea and further north, where there is less industry and less exposure to nutrient run-off, the reef is in better health. According to the Institute's Peter Doherty, "in the northern Great Barrier Reef coral cover has remained relatively stable, whereas in the southern regions we see the most dramatic loss of coral, particularly over the last decade when storms have devastated many reefs."

Experts agree that to solve the problem, much more will need to be done. For the past five years the federal government has been funding a program called "Reef Rescue" that works with farmers to reduce their sediment and nutrient run-off. It's a $200 million program that will finish up this year.

According to Environment Minister Tony Burke, speaking on Lateline last week, Reef Rescue is "having a massive difference to the impact of how much chemical is going into the ground and how much runoff as a result is then going into the reef."

In that interview with the ABC's Emma Alberici, Burke committed to extending Reef Rescue. "Reef Rescue will continue, there's no doubt that we'll find a way for Reef Rescue to continue," he said.

But so far, there is no money on the table. The logical time to put the money up would have been in this year's budget in May, for any 2013 program. But with the Government counting every penny in a desperate attempt to return to surplus, it didn't happen. Now there is real concern starting to emerge from environmental groups and farm lobby groups about when Reef Rescue will be renewed.

WWF Australia's Sean Hoobin told New Matilda this morning that "we are calling to renew it, to extend it out to 2020 and to significantly increase the level of funding."

"The one key action that we can take locally is to reduce pollution flowing to the reef and that will give the reef a chance of surviving future climate change impacts." Hoobin points out that the expiring Reef Rescue program was $200 million over five years, compared to the $10 billion being spent to try and save the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Greens are also concerned, putting up a motion in the Senate this week to try and get Reef Rescue 2 moving with another $200 million over five years. The Government and the Opposition voted it down.

The Greens spokesperson on the reef, Queensland Senator Larissa Waters, called that "an insult".

"What an insult to the Reef, on the very day that the Minister approves a massive coal port expansion, for the old parties to refuse to act on the water quality problems behind the destructive crown of thorns starfish explosions," Waters said in a statement.

New Matilda contacted Burke about Reef Rescue. "The Government has not yet completed the design of the next stage of Reef Rescue," he replied in an email.

"Once that is completed the full program will be announced together with the dollars attached to it."

"The timing of that announcement will be based on when the policy work is done not based on when the Greens happen to move a resolution in the Senate."

But on some matters, the government is moving ahead. Just yesterday they approved a massive $6.9 billion coal port in Abbott Point near Bowen. That coal will eventually be burnt in overseas factories, where it will contribute to the global warming that causes coral bleaching.

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Posted Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 16:23

I can only say thank you Ben for your article. It is terrible news but gets little attention in contrast to the kindergarten stories from Canberra.

I have protested online wherever possible.
We have to make the Reef frontline news. If it dies it will be at our peril.

Posted Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 21:14

Don't forget ocean acidification.

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 01:13

articles like this are why I read NM

cheers Ben.

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 12:48

Thanks for snapping me out of the latest soul-numbing political sideshow.
Coal exports do appear to seriously worsen tropical storms and coral bleaching, via climate destabilization.
Please try harder, Australian Parliament.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. douglas jones
Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 14:26

douglas jones
Surely not just pollution, run off and acidification, what of now unstoppable warming promoted by current and increasing level of CO2-e.
Barrier Reef may be iconic, bringing observable money but so do the less observed animals, habitat, mineral wealth, decline of agricultural potential and more all disregarded in our desire for growth seen as indispensable to current capitalism, accurately so but accounted by leaving the declining capital asset, the environment.

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 21:17

It's a question of values, isn't it? What do we value and where do we learn our values? Religionists tell us values stem from religion - but they are never in the forefront of attempting to save the natural world that sustains us and in which we evolved.
It is obvious that most humans don't value clean air, water, soil or oceans enough to stop poisoning them. The vast majority don't value privacy and personal space enough to stop breeding so we can leave some spaces untouched. Very few people value other forms of life - unless they can either be eaten or will serve us. Very few value the lives of people who are different, which is why we are endlessly at war. Scarcely anyone really values happiness, otherwise they would pay attention to centuries of sages who tell us how to be contented.
Humans value getting more than those around them... a more prestigious address, more money, a larger house and car... these sorts of things. This is the only value espoused by most people, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, and they are prepared to sacrifice everything else to gratify these primordial urges. This is how we evolved. It is the way every living thing on the planet lives, and it is foolish to imagine our species could be different. People like Ben are evolutionary misfits. Humans are simply behaving in the same way as every other animal on the planet. Pleading with normal humans to change their ways is pissing in the wind. It is beyond their ability to conceive of being different.
Thus, the deteriorating natural environment and imminent crisis is inevitable and unstoppable and has been predicted by wise men since the beginnings of technology. Nothing anyone says even slows the rate of despoliation, let alone reverses it. Wise people now, in the end days [Ha! sounds like 'rapture ready] make themselves safe and hope for the best while expecting the worst.
An excellent article, by the way, Thanks Ben. I'm a fan.

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 23:27

Stripling excellent article Ben, Unesco looked at it earlier in the year and despite protests from student activists The Great Coal War continues.

The day the major parties get some guts still seems a long way off.